Viewfinder: How did you first learn about VISTA program?
Veronica: I heard about VISTA on TV. The first time I applied I didn't get in but I filled out the second application with the help of my father and got in.
VF: Why did you decide to join?
Veronica: I had lived in New York City and then my family moved to Florida. I was in my 20's living at home and I wanted to get out of the house. It sounded interesting and exciting and I just wanted to do something. I loved it.
VF: What types of projects did you accomplish as a VISTA?
Veronica: I was a tutor in Gees Bend, Alabama – the school was first grade through high school. The Principal's name was Booker T. Booker. The people I worked and lived with were the nicest people I've ever met.
I started a class for kids in wheel chairs. I taught them how to write their letters. There was also a rural family that couldn't get to the school. They had three children with MS – I went to their house a couple of times a week to tutor them.
I loved working with the handicapped – I volunteered in high school as a girl scout with a brain damaged boy and fell in love with it.
VF: Were there other VISTAs serving with you in Gees Bend?
Veronica: Yes. I served with four other VISTAs – there were two women and two men. I became very close to one of the other women, Mary. Mary was from the local town, Camden.
VF: What was it like living in a small Alabama town in the late 1960's?
Veronica: It was a very rural, black community. There was no running water – we had to carry our own water from the well. There were no telephones – we had to drive 15 minutes to Camden to use a telephone.
But the town protected us. The community helped us. It was almost like living in a whole different culture. It made me appreciate what I had.
VF: Tell us more about your friendship with Mary.
Veronica: Mary was black and we had a ball together. We'd go into Selma and go to dress shops. That was one of the few places we could go into together. We would just about cause car wrecks – I had long blond hair and people would stare at us. People would ask me, "Are you with her?!" I went to all the black cafes, laundromats, waiting rooms – because my friend couldn't go any where else.
VF: You lived in the rural South in the late 60's when racial tensions were at an all time high. What was that like?
Veronica: I was ashamed of our race while I was there.
One night we had all gone to bed and suddenly there was a knock at the door around 11:30pm. Mary opened the door and there were two drunk white men. Mary screamed came to my bedroom to let me know and then ran out the back door. She went and got the VISTA guys at their house and they came over to see what was going on.
We ended up asking the men to come in, fixed a large pot of coffee, and sat down to talk. What did they want? One of the guys was a rancher that lived right outside of Selma – his worker hand was with him and they wanted to know why we were living there. Why didn't we leave? They thought we were nuts. We talked to them for an hour or more and at the end of the conversation they wanted us to come to his ranch and have a big steak dinner.
We never went to his ranch but I'd like to think they learned something that night.
VF: That sounds like an intense experience.
Veronica: There are so many stories. That Christmas I wanted to surprise my parents by going home. I asked one of the teachers for a ride to the bus station. She didn't think anything of it and I got in the back seat along with two black ladies – I was the only white woman in the car. When we got to Selma, there was a cop car sitting by the side of the road. Two minutes later, sirens started, and the cop stopped her. He walked up to the car, looked straight at me and gave her a speeding ticket. She was no more speeding than there was a man on mars. She didn't pay that ticket for a long time until the sheriff showed up at her door. I apologized to her and she said, "Don't worry Ms. Ronnie. This ticket was stupid."
Another time we went to a conference for VISTA and stayed at a Holiday Inn. Mary and I went into the restaurant to have lunch together. The hostess gave me a dirty look and asked how many. She took us to a table way in the back next to the fridge and threw the menus on the table. She took our order, put the plates on the table, then stared at us throughout the entire meal. We just went about our business and acted like nothing was happening.
VF: What did you do after your VISTA service?
Veronica: I went back to my parent's house in Florida and then we moved to Cincinnati. I started working for a family to help their son who was brain damaged. I volunteered at a mental institution but I only lasted a day. The kids were locked up and not dressed – they were treated horribly. I couldn't stand it. I friend of mine in Florida called to see if I wanted to be her roommate. I moved back to Florida and worked for a great hospital for the handicapped.
I then met my husband and we eventually moved to Denver.
VF: During our conversation, you told me about seeing the Freedom Quilting Bee in Denver. Can you tell us more about that project?
Veronica: The Quilts of Gees Bend was a museum exhibit traveling around the country. I happened to notice that it was coming to Denver and of course I had to go.
The Freedom Quilting Bee was a women's quilting collective in Alberta, Alabama, near to Boykin or Gee's Bend. It was founded in 1966, out of the civil rights movement. Some of the women whose quilts are represented in the Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibit once made quilts for this economic collective. Others did not. Nevertheless, it is through this earlier collective that Gee's Bend came first to be known for its quilts, for the strength of its community and the resourcefulness and artistry of its quilters.
I noticed the photographs accompanying the quilts and found one with woman who I had lived with – she was actually at the exhibit and I got to visit with her – she recognized me right away. She told me the community of Gees Bend had changed a lot – everything had opened up.
VF: What advice do you have for current VISTAs?
Veronica: Work very hard – try very hard. I would encourage anybody to do VISTA – it was a fantastic experience.